Foreign Policy piece on the bungled assassination plot on the Saudi ambassador to the US in Washington. Byman comes up with some plausible explanations of what really happened and who is responsible for the plot, in an attempt to pursue accountability on the Iranian authorities.

Whoever the culprit, and whatever the extent of complicity on the part of the Iranian government in the Arbabsiar affair is a moot point. The US and Saudi Arabia have their hands tied, and are unlikely to loosen the knots around their wrists.

For example, a military strike would be inconceivable among any one of the three parties. Iran still suffers from the trauma of the Iran-Iraq War of the early 1980s, and America has yet to extricate itself sufficiently from Iraq and Afghanistan to assuage a war-weary American public. As for Saudi Arabia, it knows full well that outright war in the Gulf would throw an already unstable succession situation into further political jeopardy.

Then there is war by proxy. For years Iran has played its hand through Syria and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has helped prop up Sunni minorities in Gulf states; recently sending troops across the channel that separates the Saudi mainland from Bahrain in order to support the Al-Khalifa regime against Bahrain’s Shia majority. The Arab Spring, as pointed out by Byman, has thrown the dynamics of this regional “cold war” into an uncertainty that disfavors Iran. Suddenly, the game of great power dynamics is not as executable on allied soil as it once was.

That leaves us with the secret war – sanctions and other, softer options having largely been depleted. Apparently the Arbabsiar affair was a part of this clash of ghosts (although ghosts, as Byman points out, do occasionally materialize and stumble). So are the assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran and the STUXNET virus sabotaging of the Bushehr plant. Politically, in all three parties involved, the secret war is the only one that is truly politically feasible at this moment. And it is precisely because of the lack of options the US now faces in dealing with an assassination plot on its own soil that the US must rely on rhetoric publicly, and intelligence privately, to pursue its interests abroad.